HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1128-30
3. Judy Mallaber

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the Northern Ireland peace process. [1378]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The multi-party negotiations resumed on 3 June. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are determined to work towards a comprehensive and lasting political settlement that has the broad support of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland

I said recently that we want the talks to move on to consider the substantive political issue of decommissioning illegal weapons within a matter of weeks. I have also said that we want Sinn Fein to join the negotiations, but have made it clear that that can happen only if there is an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire and a clear commitment to democratic principles.

Judy Mallaber

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate her on her excellent start in what we all know is a very difficult job

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the view, shared by many hon. Members, that progress in the talks has been slow and that the credibility of the process will be greatly enhanced if early progress can be made? Will she therefore tell us when she thinks we will enter into full political negotiations?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I think that the talks are in danger of running into the sands and that progress must be made as soon as possible. We are working closely with the Irish Government and the parties to try to see whether we can get the issue of the decommissioning of illegal weapons settled in the next couple of weeks, which would allow us to move on to substantive negotiations in the talks in September. We have also made it clear that, by legislation of the House, the life of the Forum, which runs parallel to the talks, comes to an end in May 1998. That is the time that we are working towards for a settlement and a final vote in a referendum.

Mr. Trimble

I welcome the right hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box and wish her well in the job that is in front of her. I also remind her that when the Prime Minister made his speech in Belfast he also said that he would not allow Sinn Fein to hold a veto over the talks and that he was encouraging or permitting his officials to speak to Sinn Fein purely for the purpose of explaining to them that it was their last chance to join the process, otherwise the process would move on. In a situation where, yesterday, republicans attempted to murder soldiers; where, this morning, republicans murdered a person in Belfast; and where there can be no doubt about the absence of any commitment to peaceful means among republicans, the only coherent thing to do is to go ahead with the process without Sinn Fein. The Government are in danger of losing credibility with the people of Northern Ireland if they keep on talking to republicans against a background of republican violence.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. In answer to his question, I condemn the violence that has taken place in the past three days. It is appalling wherever it comes from. I do not know whether the origins of the violence are yet clear, but it should be totally condemned regardless of that.

Let me make it clear to the House that the Prime Minister said that we should have clarificatory talks between officials and Sinn Fein. We are not talking to Sinn Fein until there is an unequivocal ceasefire, when— if—that comes, but it is important to understand that these are not parallel negotiations; they are not negotiations in any way at all.

We have had two meetings to clarify our position and that of Sinn Fein. We have no intention of going on indefinitely. I said yesterday that I am minded to have one more meeting in order to determine the two positions, and I believe that yesterday Sinn Fein approached the Northern Ireland Office for another meeting. Therefore, my best answer is that another meeting is likely, but that that will be it.

Mr. Hume

I join the rest of the House in welcoming the Secretary of State and her team. We look forward to working with them on all aspects of our problem. I also welcome and thank the right hon. Lady for the statement that she has just made about the peace process. I can tell the House from my own experience that an historic opportunity now exists to take the gun for ever out of our island politics and I encourage the right hon. Lady to keep on the road that she has clearly declared because the process that will bring that about is and must be a process that threatens no section of our people. Lasting stability and lasting peace must have the loyalty and allegiance of both sections of our people—something which has never existed in Northern Ireland. The opportunity now exists and I thank the right hon. Lady for the efforts that she and her team are making.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words. Perhaps I may return the compliment to him and other Northern Ireland Members. However much we try to facilitate and set the parameters, in the end, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, progress can be made only with the consent, the support and the accommodation of the two communities. Where trust and confidence is built between them, together we have a chance of stopping the violence in Northern Ireland. My thanks go to all the parties in Northern Ireland. Whether it be on decommissioning or on concluding the talks by May 1998, we can put forward suggestions, but accommodation requires the agreement of the different parties from Northern Ireland in the House. The settlement will, in the end, be theirs. We will do all we can, and we wish them well on the path to reaching an accommodation with which we can all live.

Mr. Ancram

I wish the right hon. Lady well, but does she accept that the situation on the ground is very sensitive at the moment, not least because of the recent acts of violence on both sides of the community which must be whole-heartedly condemned? In calling for calm and restraint in the face of what is undoubtedly despicable violence, will she reconfirm clearly that it remains the Government's policy to move forward only on the basis of dialogue and agreement with the parties, not by imposition, and that she will look to the new Irish Government to show the same sensitivity to the concerns of both parts of the community as she herself must?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks. Let me pick up where he ended. Of course we will represent the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. That is the job that we are here to do. I have listened to his remarks about the Irish Government. They are doing their best in a difficult situation to try to continue the discussion on decommissioning, which would be helpful to move the process forward. I can only agree that progress will be by dialogue and discussion between all the parties. Of course we will not impose an agreement or a settlement. We have never, ever suggested that. We supported the Downing street declaration and the framework document, which makes it absolutely clear—it is the cornerstone of our policy—that consent is crucial to agreement and accommodation in Northern Ireland. It is only with the consent of the different communities that any settlement that will last and can be lived with will work. In that sense, the answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is a categorical yes.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I add my welcome to the Secretary of State in her new responsibilities. It is perhaps a sign of creeping democracy in Northern Ireland that her team includes a Scot and a Welshman. That may augur well for the future. Is the Secretary of State aware that, in her responses to various questions, she used the terms "unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire" and "an unequivocal ceasefire" as if they were interchangeable? Is she aware that the ground rules provide for an unequivocal restoration of the failed and tactical ceasefire of August 1994? That ceasefire proved not only fallible but fraudulent. Are the Government wedded to a restoration of such a ceasefire, or must a new ceasefire be complete in its nature, permanent in its duration and universal in its application?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question and for his good wishes to me and my team. I wonder what the fourth person is: perhaps he is stateless. On numerous occasions since coming to office, the Government have outlined the need for an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire. We have also said that that must be confirmed by words and deeds. Our position has not shifted. I have also said that if and when we achieve a ceasefire it will be judged in the round: we will make a judgment on all the conditions at that point. It is not up to us any more: we have made it clear that the ball is in Sinn Fein's court. If progress is to be achieved to make the talks inclusive, it is up to Sinn Fein to make a move.

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